Before Stravinsky, Chop Wood, Carry Water. After Stravinsky, Chop Wood Carry Water.

Image“Music is the sole domain in which man realizes the present—Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Largely considered the most important musical work of the 20th century, it has lasted the test of time and is firmly rooted at the pinnacle of the orchestral repertoire.  I was fortunate to lead my college orchestra on an exploration and performance of the work back in February. It was an awesome experience for all of us.  I wrote about the experience of tackling such a huge work here:

https://beforethedownbeat.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/the-rite-stuff/

Rather than rehash today’s countless tributes and explanations as to why the Rite is important historically, I’d like to reflect on the above quote from Stravinsky’s autobiography.  In those few words, I feel he captures the essence of what we experience through performing and listening to his music.  His music requires you to remain in the present.  There is a sense of “nowness.”  If you lose focus while playing Stravinsky, a train-wreck is imminent.

I can attest to this from personal experience.  Whether it’s the Rite, L’Histoire du Soldat, or Dumbarton Oaks, the conductor and performer are required to be rooted in the present.  Conducting, playing, studying—it doesn’t matter.  To delve into his music is to forget yourself and concentrate intensely.  Like an Escher drawing, we think we have it figured out, only to realize that if we lose concentration, we are lost.  You rarely have the time to ponder, daydream or even reflect on what you just screwed up.  Each measure takes incredible focus and planning to get into, experience, and then exit into the next.  

Intense preparation is only part of the story.  A well-practiced piece opens further doors.  Doing so enables us to perform from a sense of deep knowing, a gnostic-groove, so to speak.  And, oh does Stravinsky ever have groove!

Amazingly, Stravinsky does this with remarkably normal materials. To be sure, the notes, music and even way of playing are not all that revolutionary, the opening bassoon solo aside.  The orchestra includes no exotic log drums, Asian zithers, or Balinese gamelans. But Stravinsky uses compositional methods and the forces of a Wagnerian orchestra in ways that challenge our assumptions.  And that, too results in an altered focus.

All music has elements of both concentration and contemplation.  Some music invites asking the big questions, the meaning of life.  Stravinsky rarely does this, at least for me. Rather, his music deals with visceral reality.  Melody is ever driven by rhythm; harmony spiced by color. It’s a thrill ride–an invitation to experience the reality of the moment. But don’t blink, or you’ll miss it, along with that meter change!

 “Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going.” — Tennessee Williams

Copyright, 2013, Robert Baldwin. Before the Downbeat

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The Rite Stuff

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“All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”—Cormac McCarthy, The Road

While our lives may no longer be closely tied to the same rituals that developed and defined world cultures, we remain drawn to a prescribed concept of order and meaning.  Often it is easy to identify: marriage, birth, death, or milestone career event.  But our lives are also filled with small rituals that we engage with on a daily basis. For myself, making morning coffee and taking daily dog walks number among those that are the important small rituals of my life.

As a musician, I also recognize many rituals of my craft, formal and otherwise.  Like every performer, there is a day for the first recital, new instrument, and winning an audition.  The little rituals also abound, and may include putting new strings on an instrument, rosining the bow, or mastering the next in a line of etudes.  These types of events can easily be taken for granted, yet provide meaning to the very fabric of a musician’s existence.

It is also worth remembering that every encounter with a piece of music is ritual.  The first experience with a major work can represent a journey, both in terms of the individual musician, and the collective participation of learning a new composition with colleagues.  Taking a piece from first reading to a concert can be analogous to the life journey.  It will contain celebratory moments, struggle, and triumph. 

“Only when we join together does this work have any meaning” – Ali Akbar Khan

As a conductor of a collegiate orchestra, perhaps I am more sensitive to this function of music.  Students certainly may behave and react differently than seasoned professionals when confronting the sublime or the unknown.  But there is something bigger and universal when we intersect the big pieces, the GIANTS of the repertoire.  The reason lies with the affect elicited from the listener and performer.  Those works represent BIG ritual.

It’s fairly easy to locate these pieces.  The composer names are often recognizable.  They are the great works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and many others.  They are the Ninth Symphony, The Resurrection Symphony, Ein Heldenleben, and the Pathetique (either Tchaikovsky’s or Beethoven’s).  The musician approaches these works with respect, care and a sense of awe.  Whether approached as a developing musician or an established veteran, the aim is clear.  The mission of performing these masterpieces is focused and reverent. 

That’s quite a preface for my journey these past 4 weeks, introducing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps) to my students as well as the audience.  Interestingly it is a piece about ritual itself, set in an imagined pagan Russia.  But it also represents a major rite of passage for all orchestral musicians.  It is a work that does not come around often.  It is filled with seemingly insurmountable issues of instrumentation, rhythmic complexity and technical demands.  Yet the music speaks far beyond these surface issues, cuts to the core of human existence.  It is emotionally wired to the something deep at the center of human experience.

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself”—Joseph Campbell

Taking on overwhelming odds, facing an uncertain outcome, and challenging oneself to the very limit is how the Hero’s Journey is often described.  Undertaking these tasks as a musician defines what it means to live as an artist.  By taking on the adventure, accepting the risks and completing the task, we return with something to share.  A story for the tribe: a concert for an audience.  A ritual worthy of every musician. 

And now, the gory details:

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring Turns 100: A joint celebration with the University of Utah Philharmonia and the Utah State University Symphony.

Two performances:

Tuesday, 2/12 7:30 p.m. Kingsbury Hall on the U of U Campus, Sergio Bernal, conductor Also featuring Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto with Keenan Reesor, piano

Saturday, 2/23 7:30 p.m. Kent Concert Hall on the USU Campus Robert Baldwin, conductor. Also featuring the Bloch’s Concerto Grosso #1.

 

Copyright 2013, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat